March 22nd, it was officially reported in New Guinea. Soon following, Sierra Leon had suspected, but unconfirmed cases. On March 26th, however, the World Health Organization confirms the first victims in Sierra Leon March 30th, cases were reported in Liberia. July 25th marked the first day Nigeria reported victims from within its borders, and on August 2nd, an American missionary was transported to Atlanta, Georgia from Liberia in order to treated. To this day, there are reports coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sengal of cases identified. This disease that is striking West Africa is the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). What started as just another small outbreak of this highly deadly, but rare, disease has turned into an international emergency, as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and countries alike spring into action in attempt to limit its spread and impact. With its far reaching capabilities, could Ebola reach similar levels of infection in the US?
According to Reuters on September 12th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared in a press conference that over 2400 individuals have died already as a result of this virus. Worse yet, according to WHO, these numbers are considered a huge underestimate. In West Africa, nations hit by the disease are being overwhelmed by the number of reported cases and are at maximum capacity with treatment facilities. World governments are all watching as West Africa’s stability and ability to control crises is being tested. Another reason why Africa is being watched is because western nations are slowly beginning to fear that Ebola could come overseas to us. As of September 12th, professional estimates being financed by the United States Federal Government claim that the predicted deaths and time span of the endemic are much longer than UN estimates. Even Peter Piot, one of the individuals to originally discover and classify Ebola, has called for a ‘quasi-military intervention’ to stop Ebola’s spread, according to a September 11th Guardian report. In short, people are beginning to panic over Ebola. The question then becomes “should we?”
While the World Health Organization says you should, we have fair reason to believe that we, as Americans, are safe. For instance, scientists over at Nature, the world's most cited interdisciplinary science journal, tell us that we're overreacting. In an article published on July 30th, Nature writes that Ebola, while a horrific disease that should be stopped as quickly as possible, will not be the end of the world. Why? Because Ebola is extremely hard to catch. According to Nature, in order to catch Ebola, "a person's mucous membranes, or an area of broken skin, must come into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, such as blood, urine, saliva, semen or stools, or materials contaminated with these fluids such as soiled clothing or bed linen." The reason Ebola has been spreading quickly so far is because of the geography and infrastructure of Western Africa. Poor sanitation, close proximity to animal carriers, poor health care systems, and delayed government responses are primarily to blame. Nature finishes with one more key fact that plays in humanity’s favor: Ebola is not airborne, meaning the speed of its transmission is extremely limited when compared to the likes of influenza, which has killed anywhere from 3,000-40,000 Americans a year. If more reassurance is needed, the Center for Disease Control, the federal agency in charge of handling any major health related crises, declared on July 28th that Ebola poses little risk to the United States and is also unlikely to spread beyond the current infected region.
Additionally, because of the urgency of this outbreak, red tape has been cut for pharmaceutical industries all around the world to create a vaccine for Ebola as quickly as possible. An article in The Economist on September 13th reports that there are over 4 major groups now working on moving prototype vaccines into direct production once basic minimum testing has been completed. While this may sound scary, holding back on creating a vaccine for a disease like Ebola because of redundant safety regulations will cost more lives than safety testing will save. Continuing with the Economist article, governments and NGOs alike have decided that these companies should be allowed to produce as quickly as possible a viable vaccine for doctors working on site, which will encourage more doctors to help fight this endemic, and eventually be provided directly to civilians. As this article is being written, there are multiple corporations, government agencies, and other groups working on possible medicines that will mitigate, prevent, or even outright cure Ebola.
For as terrifying as Ebola may be, for those of us in the US it is really no threat to be concerned over. As the Center for Disease Control and Nature have explained, unlike current Ebola stricken regions, developed nations like the United States have ready access to the basic medical supplies and medical facilities necessary to ensure diseases like Ebola do not become a problem, and in the extremely unlikely scenario that they do, to keep them under control. So in the meantime, despite Ebola posing no real threat to the US, we should do our best to help those being afflicted by it directly and indirectly as best as we can (Here's a link to a few organizations that are currently addressing the crisis in Africa if you'd like to donate).